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Shaheen visit to Valley Regional spotlights hospital staffing, capacity crisis

Before employees come to work at Valley Regional Hospital each day, they don’t know how short-staffed the hospital will be, how many new COVID-19 patients there will be to care for or how many patients will have died since their last shift, the Claremont hospital’s medical director said Tuesday.

Still, they continue to “put on scrubs, stethoscopes, layers of PPE and their smiles” to fight an “invisible enemy,” Juliann Barrett, a family physician who is Valley Regional’s medical director, said during a visit in the hospital lobby with U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.

In doing so, health care workers have sacrificed their own physical and mental health, as well as vacations and time with their families, she said.

“These heroes are tired, and they are stressed,” said Barrett, who also serves in the U.S. Army Reserve.

Barrett warned that even once COVID-19 cases drop, health care workers, who have already begun to leave the labor force, may continue to feel the impact of this stress on their health and well-being. She encouraged members of the community to get vaccinated against COVID-19 to slow the spread of the disease and to reduce hospitalizations.

“This is how we give our health care workers time,” Barrett said. “Time to recharge and time to breathe again.”

On Tuesday, as it has been many days lately, Valley Regional was at capacity, Tim McNulty, Valley Regional’s senior director of human resources, said. The hospital’s 21 staffed beds were full, six of them with COVID-19 patients, he said. In addition, the emergency department was busy.

To keep the hospital running, even as workers and their family members come down with COVID-19, other workers are having to pick up extra shifts or move to different departments, McNulty said. The challenge also has the hospital turning to traveling workers, who have become more expensive during the pandemic, he said.

“It’s stressful with COVID,” said Susan Scalera, an X-ray technician who’s worked at Valley Regional for 30 years. You “never know who’s got it.”

But Scalera said she welcomed Shaheen’s visit.

“It’s nice to see an official person coming,” she said. “We’re small.”

During her remarks, Shaheen thanked the dozens of workers gathered in the hospital’s lobby and echoed Barrett’s calls for community members to get vaccinated and boosted in order to reduce the burden of COVID-19 on the health care system.

“Thank you to all of you who have worked so hard for so long,” she said.

In addition to hospital employees, Shaheen also thanked members of the New Hampshire National Guard who have stepped up to assist hospitals around the state during this latest surge.

Several guardsmen were present Tuesday, including Sgt. 1st Class Charles Eldridge, of Nashua, who has been helping Valley Regional’s food service team since mid-December. Eldridge and the four other members of the Guard serving at Valley Regional expect to be there at least through March, he said. Two other guardsmen are helping in food service, one is helping with administrative tasks and another with materials management.

Eldridge said he took shifts on Christmas and New Year’s to give the hospital’s regular workers time off with their families.

This stint at Valley Regional is just his latest role in helping address the pandemic. He also helped during a December booster clinic in Keene, as well as at several COVID-19 testing sites around the state.

Barrett also expressed gratitude to the Guard, saying that the roles currently being filled with guardsmen are roles the hospital would otherwise have to figure out how to fill itself.

Shaheen said she’s seen the way that vaccines can reduce the burden on hospitals in the way vaccination prevented hospitalization for “several” of her family members, who had breakthrough infections.

“We need people to get vaccinated,” she said, adding that boosters also are important.

About 72% of people ages 5 and older in New Hampshire are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just 65% of people ages 5 and older in Sullivan County are fully vaccinated, well below Grafton County’s rate of nearly 77%.

Those who haven’t been vaccinated are more likely to be hospitalized should they contract COVID-19. More than 40% of those hospitalized with COVID-19 in New Hampshire are unvaccinated, and another 16% or so have had some vaccines but aren’t fully up to date, according to the state’s hospital association.

Barrett said that Valley Regional patients are treated the same regardless of their vaccination status.

“I hope that compassion holds out,” she said.

In response to questions about how she thinks about the threats that were directed at Valley Regional last month regarding its treatment of a COVID-19 patient, Barrett posed her own: Would “people walk up to a firefighter and threaten them while they’re fighting a fire?”

“Let us do our work,” she said.